5 biggest concerns I have about Iowa
Iowa rides a 6-game winning streak into 2021 after losing its first 2 games in 2020 and having its last 2 canceled. Momentum may be the next day’s starting pitcher in baseball, but there’s no way it’s carrying through that college football offseason. And therefore, I have some concerns:
1. The schedule
Opening with a conference game, put simply, “would not be my preference in a perfect world,” Kirk Ferentz said at Big Ten Media Days. “The bad news is, we’re typically a developmental team, and every day is really important to us, even in September. … We know we have a big hill to climb right off the bat. … We know we have to be ready to go right from the start.”
The truth is, Iowa often isn’t.
The Hawkeyes like to use their early games as “preseason” non-conference warmups — Ferentz said as much above — but now they’re starting with Big Ten teams. Not only did they lose their opener last year, but Iowa has lost all of its conference openers against teams not named Rutgers over the past 5 seasons. And they lost the second Big Ten game in the 2 years they started with the Scarlet Knights.
Indiana has been one of those teams Iowa could usually mark as a win when you look at the schedule this time of year. Not anymore. There was always the potential that the Hoosiers could be “the bad loss” — there’s usually one for Iowa — and sometimes the Hawks have been saved by a last-minute drop in the end zone. But this is not that Indiana. The Hawkeyes need to be sharp, then Iowa State awaits. Chances are if Iowa gets by the first two, the Hawkeyes could be looking at a 5-0 start when Penn State arrives. Expect strange scores and a tight game, per usual. But the Nittany Lions tend to snatch victory from the Hawks’ talons at Kinnick, so it won’t be easy.
Neither will back-to-back trips to the division’s dominators. Since the West was formed, Wisconsin’s won 4 titles and Northwestern 2, with Iowa’s 2015 crown as the lone exception. Hard to objectively see the Hawkeyes getting through both unscathed, but a team expected to compete for a conference title must. Don’t leave it to tiebreakers.
The season likely will come down to the Badgers game. It almost always does when Iowa is a contender. All this and I’m probably overlooking Minnesota, but the pig has become so comfortable where he is, people are starting to call him Floyd of Iowa City.
The Hawkeyes hold all four rivalry trophies now, but the Heartland has been the hardest. Win the opener and hang on to the hardware this year, and Iowa will not only be in the Indianapolis conversation, but the national one.
2. Offensive play calling
Adjust the system to the players or adapt the players to the system?
Iowa’s done a great job of the latter. Their development record is second to none, turning 2-stars into draft picks.
It’s knowing how to do the former when the lights shine brighter that trips them up.
Take Tight End U. That nickname emerged for Iowa as George Kittle did in San Francisco. Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson shared the field in 2018 — but not as often as you’d think — and first-round draft status in 2019.
But if you were left wanting more during their times at Iowa, you’re not alone. The Hawkeyes’ best offensive weapon is often neutralized in any given season. (Did somebody stash some runes around these players? Maybe AIRBHG?) Even Ihmir Smith-Marsette felt it last year.
That mantle falls to Tyler Goodson this time. The player Brandon Smith called “the human joystick” as a freshman. And Thor Nystrom called “good, son” (with apologies) in a seven-tweet highlight thread late one night last offseason. I still think about it — and so should opposing defenses. And so should Brian Ferentz.
The Hawkeyes lost Smith and Smith-Marsette at receiver, but Tyrone Tracy can be electric and Nico Ragaini, Max Cooper and Charlie Jones should provide solid support to the corps.
Sam LaPorta can keep the TEU legacy alive with a breakout season.
But the offense should run through Goodson. Will it?
Brian Ferentz might need to get creative to get T-Good the ball. Iowa is going to need it in his hands, early and often. As outlined above, the grace period is non-existent this year.
Adapt and adjust as needed to survive.
3. Quarterback play
Iowa likes to stick to its guns, but I’ve already seen the first call for “gunslinger” Alex Padilla. And that was from an expert, not a fan. Just wait.
Incumbent starting quarterback Spencer Petras will have every opportunity to succeed. It’s what Kirk Ferentz does. Even when C.J. Beathard was the clear option over Jake Rudock, the Hawkeyes had the two share TaxSlayer Bowl responsibilities and released a special “way too early” depth chart with Beathard on top in January before Rudock left for Michigan.
Petras has had the “no camp, no spring practice” narrative to fall back on.
Ferentz used it at Big Ten Media Days. He also said he was encouraged by what he saw in the comeback at Illinois, even mentioning Brad Banks before clarifying his expectations weren’t Heisman-runner-up lofty.
This year: No excuses. But the fear is that any flaw might be excused. Iowa fans should hope he makes that jump.
The bottom line is they just need more from the position. It has to be better than completing 57 percent, 6.4 yards an attempt and 11.2 yards a catch. Petras didn’t look comfortable early in the season, but turned the corner — maybe in that Illinois game, but that was the 2020 Hawkeyes’ seventh. Carry it into 2021, those calls for the backup — always there — will quiet.
4. Defensive line pressure
Is it the next man up mentality or development that works for Iowa? Maybe it’s both.
Just look at the NFL Draft lists from the last 5 years and common threads emerge.
Defensive backs: From Desmond King to Josh Jackson to Amani Hooker to Geno Stone.
Linemen and linebackers: From Jaleel Johnson to Josey Jewell to Anthony Nelson to A.J. Epenesa to Chauncey Golston. And Daviyon Nixon. And Nick Niemann.
There’s a highlight and a concern: Those last three listed are leaving all at once. All could have come back for a bonus year. None did, for good reason. Strike while the iron sharpening iron is hot. (Sorry, Dustin.) Nixon didn’t just break out — he eurostepped his way to the B1G defensive player of the year award and consensus All-America status.
Iowa needs to replace the Golston and Nixon duo’s 11 sacks and 90 tackles — 22 for loss.
Zach VanValkenburg, with 8.5 and 30 (3.5), is the pick to fill the void, but he can’t do it alone. Yahya Black is a name to watch. The front four will need time to jell — and help from behind. Thankfully, most of the back seven are back, with Matt Hankins, Kaevon Merriweather, Riley Moss, Dane Bolton and Jack Koerner among the notable names.
5. Vaccination rates
This isn’t political — it’s this year’s hottest competitive advantage trend. All coaches love competitive advantages. Lane Kiffin announced Ole Miss hit 100 percent for players and staff. So did Iowa basketball. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras just dropped a PSA.
Yet the most recent report in late July had the Hawkeyes football program under 70 percent, behind Indiana’s 90 percent around the same time, Wisconsin’s 85 in August, Iowa State’s 85 in June — to name a few.
Iowa is the only school in the Big Ten requiring neither masks nor vaccines in its COVID-19 plan. Iowa stands alone among the 14 B1G universities on masks, but it’s joined by half of the schools in not requiring vaccines. However, the ones without vaccine requirements are requiring testing for unvaccinated people. Iowa isn’t.
It’s going to make a difference on the field in 2021. But don’t take my word for it. Listen to Hawkeyes wide receiver Tyrone Tracy at Big Ten Media Days: “We’re trying our best to let (teammates) have freedom in it. But at the end of the day, we want to be a championship-level team. We can’t be a championship-level team if we have 10 guys in quarantine and another 10 that are out just because they were next to them.”
Bonus concern: Alcohol in the stands at Kinnick Stadium
Home openers at Kinnick are often amateur hour as it is. Or hours and hours, in the case of night games.
The first tailgate can sneak up on newcomers and those who didn’t keep up their “workout” regimen in the offseason. The weather is usually great and cold refreshments hit the spot. It’s even worse for kicks after dark with a long lead time, which this year’s is not, thankfully. But it is a big game to start — a B1G game, at that. And we’ve seen issue after issue of fan problems when they first return to their arenas and stadiums.
I’m old enough to remember when we could leave at halftime for more tailgating and still get back in, but keeping the bubbly flowing throughout the game is next level.
And fans haven’t just been away for a standard cycle. This time it’s been almost 2 years — 651 days to be exact — since fans have seen a game inside Kinnick’s bricks. Just add alcohol? I’m not saying it’s a terrible idea — it’s been talked about for years and is likely overdue, honestly. But the fans might have to adjust their approach if they get off to a rough start, just like the Hawkeyes. For now, all you can do is … trust Iowans to do the right thing.